WASHINGTON (AP) — Brokers who manage Americans' retirement accounts may soon be required to put investors' interests first under new restrictions proposed by the U.S. government.
The Labor Department on Tuesday opened the rules to public comment for 75 days. The Obama administration has put its weight behind the move. Against a backdrop of intense opposition from the financial industry on an earlier proposal, administration officials took pains to reassure the industry that the new framework wouldn't end the way brokers do business or prohibit them from receiving commissions or other fees.
The proposal would provide "guardrails but not strait jackets" for protecting Americans' retirement investments, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in a conference call with reporters.
The changes would put brokers — who sell stocks, bonds, annuities and other investments — under the stricter requirements for registered financial advisers.
Fierce debate and lobbying over the proposal is expected.
The stricter rules could alter the types of investments a broker recommends to you for your retirement account. Their advice could move away from riskier investments. And a broker will have to tell you when they have a conflict of interest regarding a financial product — like receiving fees — that could prevent them from putting your interest first in recommending it.
A legally binding contract with customers would require brokers to act in their best financial interest. Officials said brokers would have "flexibility" in how they're paid, so long as they exercise a fiduciary duty toward their clients. If an investor believed that their broker or investment adviser violated the contract, he or she would be entitled to pursue action in arbitration.
Fiduciaries, such as doctors or lawyers, are obligated to put their clients' interests first.
Brokers buy and sell securities and other financial products on behalf of their clients. They also can give financial advice, with one key requirement. They must recommend only "suitable" investments based on the client's finances, their age and how much risk is appropriate for him or her. So they can't pitch penny stocks or real estate investment trusts to an 85-year-old woman living on a pension, for example. But brokers can nudge clients toward a mutual fund or variable annuity that pays the broker a higher commission — without telling the client. Brokers don't have to disclose that potential conflict of interest.
Registered investment advisers, on the other hand, are fiduciaries, considered by law to be trustees for their clients. That means disclosing potential conflicts as well as fees they receive and any previous disciplinary actions against them. They must tell a client if they, or their firm, receive money from a mutual fund company to promote a product. And they have to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission, opening them to possible close inspections and supervision.
The proposal "updates the rules to crack down on ... conflicts of interest in retirement advice that are costing working and middle-class families billions of dollars every year," Obama said in a statement. "A central goal of middle-class economics is helping responsible American families retire with security and dignity after a lifetime of hard work, and today's action by the Department of Labor is an important step toward that goal."
The new requirements wouldn't apply to brokers taking direct buy or sell orders from customers without providing advice.
Without time to have pored over the fine print of the proposal, Wall Street's lead lobbying group reserved judgment.
"We want to ensure it protects investor choice and doesn't unnecessarily reduce access to education or raise costs, particularly for low- and middle-income savers," Kenneth Bentsen, president of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, said in a statement.
A coalition of consumer, labor and civil rights groups called SaveOurRetirement called the proposal "a major victory for consumers that will help bring millions of Americans one step closer to a secure, dignified retirement."